The Joy of Annotating Poems: Unlocking Deeper Understanding


We all desire our students to be able to annotate a poem effortlessly, to truly engage with the text. However, for most students, annotation remains a task done solely to appease their teachers, lacking personal investment. They fail to recognize the rewards that await them through this process.

Recently, I learned a harsh lesson about the importance of annotation. Teaching “Ozymandias,” I arrogantly believed I knew the poem inside out. But during the lesson, I stumbled through a mediocre explanation of this magnificent work. It dawned on me that I had failed to internalize the poem’s essence. This is where the power of annotation becomes evident. By taking the time to annotate, one’s understanding extends far beyond what they initially perceive. I want my students to grasp this concept, to appreciate how annotation deepens their comprehension of any text. However, they need guidance, strategies to help them tackle this task that often feels unnatural.

The following day, I taught Christina Rossetti’s “I Wish I Could Remember That First Day.” The night before, I meticulously annotated the poem, realizing it presented a perfect opportunity to share my strategies with my students. The beauty of poems lies in their brevity, allowing for repeated analysis within a short span of time.

I took up the challenge, capturing a photo of my annotations and projected them on the screen. I informed the students that this is the level of annotation they should strive for (although the picture was too small for them to discern the specifics).

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So, here’s my approach to annotating a poem:

Read, Recreate, and Question

  1. Read the poem a couple of times without doing anything: Initially, get a feel for the poem, familiarize yourself with its layout and structure.
  2. Recreate the poem in writing: Begin to write, retelling the poem to the best of your ability. Don’t worry if parts remain unclear; focus on establishing the speaker, their emotions, and the overall tone. For instance, in “I Wish I Could Remember That First Day,” the speaker is deeply regretful about their inability to recall a specific encounter.
  3. Ask questions: Delve deeper into the poem by playing devil’s advocate. Push the boundaries and challenge the text. Why does the speaker yearn to remember this event? Would remembering it have made their life better? Explore the alternatives for preserving the memory during the time the poem was written.
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Seeking Significance and Analyzing

  1. Think about the larger significance: Ponder the impact of modern technology on memory. With our ability to record and curate our lives extensively through photographs and social media, does it now become easier to remember everything? Or does this abundance of memories put more pressure on us when we miss something?
  2. Look for interesting words or phrases: Along the way, keep an eye out for captivating words or phrases—vivid descriptions, peculiar word choices, or enigmatic lines that leave you puzzled.
  3. Finally, explore literary devices and the rhyme scheme: At this point, with a solid grasp of the poem’s content, delve into the construction of the poem. Investigate the purpose behind the literary devices employed and analyze their effects on the poem’s meaning.

This approach to annotating poems deviates from more rigid methods found online. Many approaches emphasize identifying unknown words, dissecting literary devices, and labeling every noteworthy element. However, by immersing ourselves in a poem from the start, we gain a more intimate and contextual understanding. Afterward, we can examine the construction of the poem, gaining insights into the purpose behind its devices.

For an engaging collection of comics about remarkable poems that you can annotate, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Unlock the potential of annotation and discover the joy of interpreting poetry on a deeper level.


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